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Dubai Airshow: Planemakers are looking at flying in 3D

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Media captionThe Dubai Airshow has the biggest display of 3D printing technology ever assembled at an aerospace event.

Thirty years ago, it was a pipe dream for scientists. How could one make a machine to replicate three-dimensional objects? Here, in the exhibition hall at Dubai Airshow, it happens before your very eyes.

Jay Shelby, engineer with the 3D printing company Stratasys, presses a button on a machine which is roughly twice the size of a microwave oven.

A pale blue light glows inside and a nozzle starts sliding back and forth, spitting out a thin stream of molten plastic.

Very slowly, a shape starts to build up. It is an interior strut for a jet-powered drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, which Stratasys is building entirely out of 3D-printed components, in conjunction with Aurora Flight Sciences.

Mr Shelby says: "With the molten plastic, it squirts it out similar to frosting a cake - layer by layer, building up the shape. And as the plastic cools, it starts to solidify, and then you can see the shape form."

However quickly the nozzle in the printer darts around, 3D printing is a slow process. Every new layer adds only another quarter of a millimetre to the height.

The largest single component on the drone is one metre across, but it takes no fewer than nine days to print.

Image caption Stratasys' is making drones using 3D printing

However, 3D printing is a technology that is set to transform aerospace manufacturing, cutting costs and improving the speed and efficiency with which products are made. Traditional methods of plastics-moulding and metal-casting look to be on their way out.

Working with metal can take a heavy toll on machines that need constant repair and replacement. 3D printing, or additive layer manufacturing as it is sometimes called, offers the possibility of a far cheaper manufacturing model.

That's why a whole section of the Dubai Airshow is taken up with companies and products extolling the benefits of this new technology. Just a few years ago, you'd be lucky to find a single 3D company at airshows trying to persuade the aerospace industry that a manufacturing revolution was underway.

And yet, mini 3D machines are now even available to the hobbyist. Several machines were on display at the airshow, with the cheapest costing about $1,000 (£660).

Complex shapes

Planemakers Boeing and Airbus already use 3D-printed components extensively, as does defence company Lockheed Martin.

Airbus' new A350 XWB aircraft is thought to use more 3D-made components than any other passenger jet, at about 1,000. Lockheed and Boeing use them on a joint venture, United Launch Alliance, that sends rockets into space.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Airbus' A350 XWB is said to use more components made by 3D printing than any other aircraft

Drone manufacturers also now use 3D-printed metal components because they are often 25% lighter than ones cast in the traditional way. For the same reason, NASA is using 3D-printed components for its new Space Launch System, which will take astronauts and cargo into space.

And Boeing has 300 varieties of 3D-printed components across 10 different types of aircraft. The company says that in the planes it is now building and delivering to customers, there are more than 20,000 3D-printed parts

In theory, new components and replacement parts could be produced in printing machines anywhere in the world.

Say, for example, a British Airways aircraft on the tarmac in Dubai needed a new component. Someone, be they in Dubai or BA's engineering headquarters in the UK, would transmit the necessary computer instructions to print a part.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 3D printers are growing in popularity

Mr Shelby says: "You don't have to have a big manufacturing facility. You don't have to have skilled labourers to run these machines.

"You just need space to put the machine and a few men to start the jobs. It saves time for aircraft firms in the production cycle because they can build these parts on site, rather than waiting to have them shipped in."

Components printed by 3D often prove to be more robust than ones made with the old technology, and more simple to make.

Untested

"You are able to make more complex parts all in one piece," says Mr. Shelby. "You can make a part which used to be made of 10 separate components and make it as a single component."

Stratasys and Aurora Flight Sciences built their jet-powered drone to prove to the aviation industry it is possible to build an entire aircraft out of 3D-printed components.

Image copyright JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK
Image caption Critics of 3D printing caution that the technology hasn't been tested over the long term

Until a few years ago, the aircraft manufacturers were reluctant to buy 3D-printed components for their planes, because they were untested.

Stringent aviation safety regulations means parts have to be particularly robust, able to withstand extremes of speed, temperature and vibration.

The 3D aerospace components being used today are generally non-critical parts, although some companies, including GE Aviation, are experimenting with more safety-important parts such as aero-engine components.

But the technology is still evolving, and there are currently limitations regarding size, strength and the complexity of products.

A report from consultants PwC said that 3D printing could certainly be a game-changer, but that the biggest impediment to mass production was processing speed.

Other sceptics have highlighted quality control problems and the need to overcome safety regulation hurdles.

Nevertheless, there is clearly an excitement in the industry about 3D printing's potential, including to change the design of aircraft and military equipment by creating more complex shapes.

Earlier this year, an executive at French defence firm Dassault, Pierre Marchadier, told his engineers that the arrival of 3D printing meant that a new era had arrived.

"Be creative," he said. "There are no limits to your dreams."

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